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Friday, December 4, 2009

Adrian Belew: The Guitar As Orchestra


1) Score Without Film; 2) Portrait Of The Guitarist As Your Drum; 3) Piano Recital; 4) Laurence Harvey's Despair; 5) Piano Ballet; 6) Rings Around The Moon; 7) Seven E Flat Elephants Eating Acacia Of A C# Minor Forest; 8) If Only; 9) Alfred Hitchcock's "Strangers On A Train" Starring Robert Walker; 10) Finale; 11*) Stage Fright.

We cannot say that we have not been warned. The album cover glows with the extended title: "Experimental Guitar Series, Vol. 1: The Guitar As Orchestra". Considering that Belew's guitar playing had always been experimental, even on his pop albums, a title like that should inevitably lead one to the question: «If this is 'Experimental Guitar Vol. 1', then do we presume that every­thing before it, in the guy's eye, was 'Non-Experimental'?»

Presumably. For many people, 'experimental' in music is nearly synonymous with 'unusual' or 'weird', i. e. 'a way of playing music that strays away from conventional approaches'. Which is, of course, hardly the basic meaning of the term: 'having the characteristics of experiment', i. e. 'an operation or procedure carried out under controlled conditions in order to discover an unknown effect or law' (Webster). The Guitar As Orchestra fully confirms to this definition and is, as a result, utterly and intentionally unlistenable as "music".

But it is fairly intriguing as "experiment". Using a wide range of pedals, guitar synthesizers and processors, Belew makes his guitar sound like violins, cellos, harps, or­gans, chimes, and, above all, pianos, playing either in the "modern classical" or the "mini­malist am­bient" styles. I would say that the title is somewhat misleading: the guitar is actually very rarely used as an "orchestra" — most of the pieces are played with just one or two leading "fake instruments", so the word should rather be understood here as signifying "a whole heck of different stuff".

I do not suppose that any of these tracks have any serious musical vision behind them. Of course, just how good Adrian is at "modern classical" is something you will have to decide on your own; my organism produces no emotional response whatsoever to that kind of music, be it Varèse, Schoenberg, Zappa, or Belew. But something tells me — for instance, the near-total lack of ad­miration expressed for the record on the part of «super-cool» music aficionados — that history will probably not be placing him on the same level with the other three.

His ambient panoramas work somewhat better, but even here he presents no threat to great masters of the style. There is nothing on the level of his own 'Guernica' from Desire Caught By The Tailthese images, no matter how complex and twisted their titles may be, lack a language of their own. The titles are, in fact, the most telling element on here: 'Portrait Of The Guitarist As A Young Drum' is a pretty good mirror image of the guitarist, who does indeed behave as a young drum on most of the tracks.

As a pure experiment, though, the album achieves its goals admirably — to the point that you can always capitalize on its surprise value as long as you still have an uninitiated friend or two. Then you can invite him to your house, play him 'Alfred Hitchcock's 'Strangers On A Train'', and, once he is properly worked up to the point of shouting 'Cut it out, this Nazi guy should be shot for fuckin' butche­ring that piano!', triumphantly object 'What piano? That's no piano — that's a guitar! Don't tell me you can't tell the difference between guitar and piano!' That will certainly be one great way to assert your musical authority, and you can thank Adrian Belew for guidance. I actu­ally tried it out once. What do you know, it worked.

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